Up against a wall

THE END OF SCIENCE·John Horgan· Helix books/ Addison Wesley Publishing Company · Price US $24

By Sangeeta Agarwal
Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

science has provided us with many an insight into the nature of things. Empirical facts like the explosion of the universe into being 15 billion years ago, the formation of the Earth 4.5 billion years ago, the generation of life three to four billion years ago and the continuing process of evolution that we as a species are undergoing even today, have all been derived from science.

But John Horgan, senior writer for the Scientific American prophecises that we may be left with just a few scientific truths to chew on, since the great era of scientif ic discovery is over and further research may not yield any more great revelations or revolutions. His book is a radical intellectual thesis and its claims are substantiated through a series of interviews with many scientists and scientific writers, visionaries and some leading thinkers of the day. The author has spoken with Roger Penrose, Stuart Kauffman, Steven Weinberg, John Wheeler, Noam Chomsky, Gunther Stent and many more to present a strong case.

The book is broken into sections which portend the end of physics, the end of cosmology, the end of social science and even the end of progress and philosophy. In an article in Technology Review Horgan says, "I have been putting across questions to scientists who are butting their heads against the limits of knowledge, from particle physicists who dream of a final theory of matter and energy to neuroscientists probing the processes in the brain that gave rise to consciousness."

The book is a good short cut or even a refresher for reviewing the scientific highlights of the last two decades. It is a great attempt at challenging the scientific community to a debate. The author is forcing them through questions and arguments to come to terms with what he thinks is truly the last lap in the road to scientific discovery. He asserts that science imposes limits on its own power as it advances. For instance, Einstein's theory of special relativity prohibits the transmission of matter or even information at speeds faster than that of light. Whether or not we agree with the premise, during the course of the book one does encounter the finiteness of things face-to-face.

As for philosophy, he writes: "The great problems of philosophy are real but they are beyond our cognitive ability. We can pose them but we cannot solve them." According to him there may be many amazing truths that have not yet been dealt with, but they may well stay under wraps and actually defy a solution or resolution... almost as though one were giving in to the power of the unknown and unfathomable creator. The question is whether science can banish mystery from the universe? Could one learn everything there is to know and thus bring science to an end? If so, what would humanity do for the rest of eternity?

Horgan, who is known for his science journalism, has evidently the right credentials to be making such a case. In the book he relates the uneasiness that is grip ping the scientific communi ty as it begins realising the fact that its glorious days of achievement are numbered. At the same time he lauds the success of science as its findings have been painstakingly woven together from empirical evidence and stoutly reinforced by continuous observation. His thesis has often looked into both sides of the argument.

The book is by no means to be dismissed lightly even though it shall be received by many as a hard-to-believe premise. But the author has made a powerful case and has backed his arguments with daunting data and information, which almost gives them the appearance of a scientific experiment.

The book however, has its limitations. It has been written mostly with the pure sciences in mind. One begs to differ as the fact remains that there is still a lot that remains to be deciphered in the fields of botany, zoology, medicine, anthropology and other related sciences.

Even though Horgan feels that it is not possible for future generations to 'star trek' their way to discovering new lifeforms, it is not entirely unlikely. One frequently hears of breakthroughs as spacecrafts close in on planets, obtaining greater insights as to their nature. It may be true that we are not likely to hit upon another universe for some time. But all the same, it is beyond doubt that this very universe is providing us with more questions than we can answer.

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